The 2018/19 Sky Bet Championship finally gets underway this Saturday afternoon (3pm) as Middlesbrough make the trip down to The Den.
The Lions’ 25-year anniversary of the club’s move to The ‘new’ Den sees the visit of Tony Pulis’ side for an eagerly awaited contest to kick off the new campaign.
Founded in 1876, Boro’ host their matches at the Riverside Stadium, their home since leaving Ayresome Park in 1995 after 92 years.
The club’s current spell in The Championship is about to embark on its second season, having been relegated from a solitary Premier League season in 2017. Prior to their promotion under Aitor Karanka, the Teessiders spent seven years in the second tier which brought an end to a lengthy spell as an established top-flight outfit.
Boro’ possess a proud history, having spent successive seasons representing England in the UEFA Cup. They reached the Final of the competition in 2006, where they were defeated by Sevilla in Eindhoven after historic comebacks in previous rounds against Basel and Steaua Bucharest. The club lifted the League Cup under Steve McClaren in 2004, beating Bolton Wanderers in the Final in Cardiff to secure their first ever major trophy. Having been promoted from the second tier on seven occasions, Boro’ have won four divisional titles – most recently in 1995, signing off at Ayresome Park in Bryan Robson’s debut season in charge.
Ones to Watch
Darren Randolph has been Boro’s first-choice goalkeeper since his arrival at the Riverside on a long-term deal from West Ham United in the summer of 2017. The Republic of Ireland stopper featured in every game of his debut campaign, keeping 17 clean sheets. After starting his career with Charlton Athletic, Randolph featured for Motherwell and Birmingham City before moving to the Premier League. The 31-year-old currently has 27 Irish caps to his name, the first earned in 2012, and played every match for Martin O’Neill’s team at Euro 2016.
Daniel Ayala has come into his own in a Boro’ shirt, settling since his move from Norwich City in 2014 after a spell on loan at the Riverside. Spaniard Ayala’s professional career has been spent entirely in England, breaking through at Liverpool after leaving hometown club Sevilla as a teenager. The rangy centre-half – named in the PFA Championship Team of the Year in 2015/16 – is known for his forward threat as well as his defensive ability, with seven goals last season to become the team’s third-highest scorer. Whilst the 27-year-old has not represented his nation at senior level, Ayala has been capped for Spain’s U21 side.
Adama Traore is one of the division’s most exciting players. The former Barcelona wide man is confident and forward-thinking, with plenty of acceleration and dribbling ability. Still just 22, Traore topped Boro’s assist chart last season with 10, along with five goals. Having risen through the worldwide-acclaimed Barcelona academy, the forward featured predominantly for the ‘B’ team before joining Aston Villa, then arriving on Teesside in 2016.
Britt Assombalonga was Boro’s top scorer last season, firing in 15 goals including one against Millwall at the Riverside late last season. The DR Congo striker, 25, began his career with Watford before successful spells with Peterborough United and Nottingham Forest, scoring over 100 goals in just over 200 total career appearances. Boro’s number nine has many admirers, and made his long-awaited national debut earlier this year after being forced to withdraw from previous DR Congo squads. The responsibility of Assombalonga could become stronger this season following the departure of fellow striker Patrick Bamford to Leeds United this week.
In the Dugout
Tony Pulis carries years of managerial experience, beginning his coaching career with a hybrid role at Bournemouth whilst still playing as a defender in 1992. The Welshman established himself as a League manager whilst at Gillingham, winning promotion to the old Division Two in his first season in 1996. Pulis is best known for his work across two spells with Stoke City, spanning 464 games and guiding the Potters to the 2011 FA Cup Final and the Premier League, where they remained until the end of last season. Having also taken charge of Crystal Palace and West Bromwich Albion, Pulis picked up the Premier League’s Manager of the Season Award in 2014 with the former as he steered Palace to 11th in the top flight, with the club having lost nine of their first 10 games before his arrival. Middlesbrough appointed Pulis on Boxing Day last year after the departure of Garry Monk, with the club securing a Play-Off place.